SCREAM, AND KEEP SCREAMING TILL IT STOPS—that’s the way to have the most fun on a roller coaster. You have to become one with it, and the way you do that is by “orchestrating” its every rattle, turn, and downward swoop. Well, that’s my theory, at least.
I’ve had plenty of chances to test it lately. Thanks to new technologies that allow coasters to perform heretofore impossible feats, the country is going scare-crazy. According to Susan Mosedale, who monitors “thrill rides” for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are 56 new roller coasters operating in the United States this year, up from 39 last year and 27 in 1997. Texas is in the forefront with 5— Batman the Ride at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Serial Thriller at Six Flags Astroworld in Houston, the Steel Ee l at SeaWorld San Antonio, and Poltergeist and Boomerang at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, also in San Antonio. As many as 50 are due to open next year. This is the most activity since the golden age of the roller coaster, about 75 years ago.
Many recently built coasters have elaborate themes and do amazing, stomach-flopping things that not everyone will appreciate. “In the seventies just going upside down was considered earthshaking,” notes Tim Baldwin, a regional representative for the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana branch of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), a 5,800-member group of die-hard riders. “Now they have coasters you ride standing or in cars that run under the tracks, so your feet are dangling free. I’ve heard that next year there’s going to be one you ride lying down.”
Indeed, Superman, the Escape, which opened in 1997 at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, stands 415 feet tall and hits one hundred miles per hour. This year Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, launched Medusa, the first floorless, frontless, sideless coaster; riders are secured to a seat by a shoulder harness, and hurtle along directly over the coaster’s wheels at speeds of up to 61 miles per hour. At Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, the brand-new BuzzSaw Falls offers both a traditional rip on the rails and a flume ride, dropping nine and a half stories (nearly one hundred feet) into water, then splashing atop some river rapids before hooking back up to the tracks for another long climb and fall. Gwazi, at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida, is a “dueling coaster”—two coasters, actually, that weave around each other, separated at times by only a few feet.
As a lifelong fan, I wanted to experience the state of the art in Texas, and so I rode. I rode nearly thirty roller coasters, all but the kiddie coasters, at Texas’ four major theme parks, and I rode many of them twice—once in the front, where I got both a smoother ride and a better view of what was about to happen to me, and once in the rear, where the whiplash effect was greater.
My favorite new ride proved to be Poltergeist at Six Flags Fiesta Texas; like Mr. Freeze, which opened last year at Six Flags Over Texas, it is a LIM (linear induction motor) coaster. The LIM was first developed as a launching mechanism for rockets and was used in President Reagan’s Star Wars military defense program. As explained by Jay Crisler, a projects engineer for Premier Rides, which adapted the LIM to coasters, the cars have metal fins on the bottom that fit between two parallel tracks of electromagnets. The train is powered by a fluctuating magnetic field created by currents surging through the tracks. He compares it to putting one magnet on top of a table and another below the table; when you move the lower one, the upper one follows. This means that a LIM coaster doesn’t have to clickety-clack on a chain up a steep hill in order to gain speed by plunging downward. No, Poltergeist blasts out of the station, going from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds, with riders pinned to their seats briefly by the ride’s peak G-force of 4.5 (1 G is your normal body weight, the natural pull of gravity). By comparison, astronauts feel about 3 G’s on liftoff, and fighter pilots trained specifically to handle such force usually black out around 8 G’s; 3.5 G’s is optimum for a coaster, while 4 G’s is considered dangerous if it lasts more than about ten seconds.
Poltergeist’s peak doesn’t last anywhere near that long, of course, but after getting your attention with the launch, the ride just keeps getting hairier. It runs on a fiendishly compact 2,705-foot track known as a spaghetti bowl, whizzing relentlessly through an astonishing number of hard loops, hairpin curves, and corkscrews, with the train often spinning around the tubular track as it moves forward. There’s an early, zero-G “cobra” roll that combines a corkscrew and a vertical loop, and the final barrel roll happens so quickly it just plain forces you to laugh out loud. By the time Poltergeist comes to a sudden halt and then eases you into the station, your grin still glued to your face, it has turned you upside down and inside out more ways than you thought possible.
For my money, nothing else touches Poltergeist, though not for lack of trying. Arlington’s Batman the Ride is an inverted coaster, which means you ride in cars that are suspended under the track, like a ski lift gone ballistic. This one climbs just over 109 feet at the beginning—think of it as a ten-story building—then careens at fifty miles an hour into a gigantic vertical loop, a dandy “heartline” spin, which creates a feeling of weightlessness in which your heart seems to be standing still while your body spins around it, and then another massive loop, which came and went so fast I wasn’t sure it had happened until I watched the next group of riders. Somewhere in there I went through two long corkscrews and a host of